Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Dispatch: Sonora Desert
I'm a sucker for a good road trip. To leave behind what is known, to find something not yet known. There is so much wanderlust knocking around in me that I’ll happily road trip to just about any X on the map. Pack the car, honey, we are out of here!
I can hear the thrum of the road under the tires, now. The blue pacific, a fading shimmer in the rearview. And when we’ve logged a few hundred miles, the sky suddenly opens, the landscape takes a deep breath and the desert rises in a great blanket of unmoving silence in every direction. It’s like passing through the mist in a dream.
The desert is my own version of a lunar landing. Desolate and barren, it offers a blank canvas on which to unfurl the poetry and longing that needs big, star-filled skies to awaken.
It’s more than simply leaving behind the stress of a busy life. It is more than just quieting the mind. It’s not tranquility I feel. It is a deep longing that blooms in my chest. A homecoming to a place that sees me coming and starts waving it’s shimmering mirage in the distance. Yes, I see you there, and I’m coming. Your lost child. Your wandering soul. Your daughter of the earth and sky.
It calls to me in a place that cannot be named. At the base of my skull, in the primal chakras of my core. I would wander through this place for eternity, if I could. I would sit in its stillness until it filled me with the wisdom of the ancients, until the bird calls and the fluted wind-song became as familiar to me as my own heartbeat.
I can’t explain the knowing that I feel out here. It’s a memory that lives in my bones. I once belonged here. I roamed this land. I was rooted in this place where I felt synergy, not superiority. I remember the ceremony, the drums, the wailing into the sky. The prayers of gratitude and humility. The cries to be blessed by the very creatures on which we butchered and feasted.
And I feel this knowing, wherever the ancient spirits still have room to roam. Where the air is quiet and dry, I feel them come around me. They hunch their eagle wings over my shoulders, place a wreath of sage on my head and beckon me to follow them over the ridge or up the river or around the next bend, beyond where the footpath ends.
They have followed me around the world. Or rather, I have come home to them over and again in far away places. In the great red basin of the Australian Outback. On the mountain tops of Guatemala, and at the burial sites of Machu Picchu. I felt them in the dark, on the river bank deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, as the Shaman sang and the Ayawaska beat in my ears and burned in my chest.
There was the baby, newly-born in a clay house at the foot of the Kuelap Ruins, her bright red body writhing as I anointed her with holy water. Come with me, she said. As you bless me, I bless you. We begin anew. Spirit child. Eagle wings. Head full of sage.
I have always felt the spirits, but once I saw them, too. Chaco Canyon, American Southwest. We were sojourning through the four corners on the threshold of starting a family. We were deep into the rhythm of car camping and dusty hiking boots and long desert roads that the map told us would eventually take us where we wanted to go.
Once we turned off the pavement of state route NM-17, the road to Chaco was 19 miles of unpaved hell that took the better part of two hours. We must have really wanted to get there because the campground is tiny and there were no reservations - if it was already full it meant two hours back out, and then another 50 miles from there to the nearest gas station. But that’s what we liked about it - very few people care to make the journey, which leaves lots of room for the spirits to roam.
And roam they did. Their presence was crushing. The canyon walls around Chaco’s ruins shoot up into great cliffs of layered sedimentary rock, some in horizontal stripes of white and brown and other sections, pure shocks of red southwestern earth. Centuries of rainfall over the flat tops of the cliffs has allowed for waterfalls of erosion that created great cracks and crevasses down the vertical face of the canyon.
The stone cliffs are immediately the most stunning feature of the landscape around Chaco, but what I saw in them was more than just geological erosion. They were there all around us - the ancients, crowded in shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. Elderly faces cut with deep lines, right next to younger faces that sat over the smaller, child-like faces. There were men and women. Young and old. Some wore light, open expressions while others were hard-lined warrior faces that sent a chill through me.
In some sections they were grouped together forming a generational family, and others stood apart. A chief with his long nose and broad forehead. A sagely women that was round and welcoming. And where the canyon rounded deeper into the valley, a great stone eagle’s head rising above everything else.
For as much as their shapes differed, they were strikingly the same people. The same tribe. They belonged collectively to this land. All of them had eyes, cut sharply and deep into their faces, following me as I walked the canyon floor. I stood among the walls of Pueblo Bonito and walked through the marvelous ruins of Wijiji, but for all the engineering genius that surrounded me, I couldn’t take my gaze up off of the faces that loomed above the canyon, as far as my squinting eyes could see.
They watched me. They spoke to me. They were so haunting that I asked Ryan if he saw them, too.
Sort of, he said.
I was exhausted by the end of the day, as though I had spent the afternoon wandering through a cemetery full of my own relatives. People I had never met, but for whom I was mourning the loss, just the same. But they were there in living, vibrant color. Watching me walk through their sacred land, silently telling me their stories. Silently mourning the loss of me, too.
As the day faded and the faces went mercifully dark, I laid in the tent and let hot tears soak into my sleeping bag. Ryan started the fire but I couldn’t move - too consumed with a longing and sadness that I couldn’t explain, but that I’d come to know so well.
It had happened again. I retraced the footsteps of the ancients. The sky opened up into glorious rainbows of light. My tribe revealed itself to me. I touched again a sliver of eternity and the deep river of longing to belong to a people that no longer exist.
I should have been used to it, but it still surprised me. It humbled me. I don’t know why my eyes see what they do. Or why the water runs so deep through memories that I own, but of times when I didn’t yet exist.
But it isn’t mine to ask why, it is only mine to keep moving. Keep wandering. Keep open, with my eyes turned up to the sky.
Sing sweet poetry of the desert hills.
Float me in the river, carry me over the rise.
Be with me in my timeless longing, draw the curtains off my eyes.
Take me long and take me high, and leave me on the crest to weep, to sleep, to sigh.
Sing sweet poetry, my desert hills. Your child with the wandering eye.